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5 Uncomfortable Truths and a Consoling Lie in Strategy

John Roberts John RobertsMar 15, 2021

5 Uncomfortable Truths and a Consoling Lie in Strategy

Since when did being honest become a distinctive and undernourished business offering? Seriously!

Across all aspects of our lives — business and politics, relationships and media — people’s belief in the availability and accessibility of “truth” has plummeted over the past few years. So where can we turn? In the recent 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, business is now the most trusted institution globally — trusted by 61% of people — overtaking NGOs (57%) for the first time and ahead of government (53%) and media (51%)(1).

advertising professionals are considered less honest than car salespeople

So, there is an opportunity and an expectation that businesses will use their brands to deliver truth. Yet in the recent Gallup Honesty & Ethics report (2), advertising professionals are considered less honest than car salespeople and only saved from being at the bottom of the steaming veracity pile by members of Congress. Truth should be at the heart of any relationship demanding trust. So, what happened? That is the basic, seemingly simple, yet surprisingly complex issue that we seek to resolve with what we call honest strategy: a truth telling that differentiates and genuinely, truthfully, adds value to brands.

But before we get into that, let’s be honest with each other. What is “strategy”? The biggest lies start with tiny misshapings.

Ah, “strategy”: As a gnarled and gnarly Chief Strategy Officer of 20+ years, I am filled too often with a sense of doom and despair at the very sound of this word. For too long, “strategy” has been an indulgent muddle or business wallow-pit of incoherent babble, PowerPoints and self-determining inertia.

The Harvard Business Review (3) was right, all the way back in 2014, in demonstrating statistically that most strategy is doomed to failure — a recurring pat on the back of Sisyphus — by essentially repeating the same flaws every year for little or no success.

if you are entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good.” —HBR

“This is a truly terrible way to make strategy. It may be an excellent way to cope with fear of the unknown, but fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy making. In fact, if you are entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good.” HBR

And so that’s Uncomfortable Truth #1.
A strategy should be about accepting risk and optimizing the chance of success, not wrapping yourself in feel-good gibberish and the safe inertia of small, incremental change. And there’s a comfort blanket, too, of overfocusing on what we can control — costs and the past — and thinking we can use that to predict a future. Henry Mintzberg (4) brilliantly observed that managers overestimate their ability to predict the future and to plan for it in a precise and technocratic way.

Discomforted? So we should be. And now, let’s dig in and learn more honesty bites …

So, Uncomfortable Truth #2.

What is strategy anyway? A gazillion expressions exist today to describe in so many smart-sounding (and some not) ways how strategy is setting a plan or pathway to achieve certain goals. But that falls short to me. I believe that strategy is an Informed belief about how to thrive. Thanks for sparking my mind, Mark Pollard (5)

Informed – because it’s based on data, learning, facts and clarity.

Belief – because after all, we’re planning a future event with no guarantee of result; and so, at its very heart, strategy has to be objectively subjective. Example? Look back at the past 12 months. I’m pretty sure not one brilliant marketing mind at the tail end of 2019 said, “We have a strategy to survive a global pandemic.”

Thrive – because too many definitions, for me, take that militaristic winning approach, championing and chest-beating that we’ll squash the opposition, we’ll crush all before us. Really? Dominate the world. Really? How do we do that for the benefit of others? Those people called consumers are the owners of our future. They determine our success more than we marketers do, and if they trust us and believe in our brand and our promise, then we can thrive. But not without them. If nothing else, 2020 demonstrated how brands need to become more purposeful than purpose claimed (but let’s save that tangent for another day).

Uncomfortable Truth #3.

Be deliberate. Sounds funny when we’re committing our grand plan in writing, but I love this as a reminder because of the delicious duality of meaning that we all too often overlook: Deliberate (-ate; verb): to think hard, thoughtfully, weigh options; and deliberate (-et; adjective): conscious and chosen. And both these meanings are sadly lacking in strategy, where we can avoid making those objectively subjective choices. After all, isn’t the essence of positioning sacrifice?

Uncomfortable Truth #4.

People, real people, the kind who actually buy our brands, ask their friends for advice. And people start out by believing that brands within a category are pretty much the same (6). So, standing out, making your voice and message distinctive, matters more than ever.

But this takes risk — that deliberate, calculated weighing and choosing to be expansive, to aim higher. And that is an uncomfortable Truth #4: Strategy without creativity is doomed to fail. Yet the rational mind is flawed and looks on creativity as an optional extra, not the business-critical mandate it truly is.

Don’t believe me? Believe the data, then (7). An analysis of 7 years’ worth of 4,000+ case studies of the most successful, awarded work demonstrated an astonishing 12x profit multiplier for creativity.

“Even though it may seem riskier, the data evidence is conclusive that work with creative, award-winning qualities is far more likely to be effective than ordinary work.”(8)

Uncomfortable Truth #5.

Ah, the data. The evidence. 60% of Americans believe that they themselves can discern “fake” news but that only 20% of other people can (9).

How do you read that? As a damning indictment of how we feel about our neighbors or a massive overconfidence in self? Or both? To me it feels meta all over, but I actually just want to use it to make a simpler point of Truth #5: Data is not an answer; it’s a combustible fuel for success.

It’s an easy connection to make that in this unprecedented time (there, I had to say it, didn’t I), we look to numbers for a sense of certainty. But we’ve been doing that for longer than just a pandemic year. And our strategies have been failing because of it.

Don’t get me wrong, please. I’m pretty sure that I’m not a digital neo-luddite who rails against all data. But I do feel that our pendulum has swung so far over that we mistakenly believe that a data point is a proof point of success, rather than an indicator of direction. And I think of data as combustible fuel because we’re demanding immediate returns, or success or actions, and sometimes it’s best to just allow things to evolve, emerge, mature. If we believe that the data is the end goal, then we’re constantly constraining ourselves by focusing on what’s measurable and reportable NOW — the near term.

Binet & Field’s brilliant “The Long and the Short of It(10), and all their more recent updates, uses data to reinforce the point that the overfocus on near-term data is flawed: It’s like driving watching the hood of your car, instead of looking up and looking out, as strategy does. Measuring near-term results only puts us all in a vicious sinkhole of strategies with a success criterion centered on the immediate (well, within 6 months), draining the long-term commitment to the ultimately more substantial business gain from strategies that commit to building brands for the longer term. And that brings me around to the definition of strategy again. We all want to thrive, don’t we? And thriving takes time.

At last, here we are, then (if you’ve stayed with me): the end, very nearly, I promise. We’ve just discussed 5 uncomfortable truths that make up an honest strategy. Uncomfortable, because we intuitively know them to be true, and yet we avoid them too easily:


Strategy must optimize the chance of success,
not minimize the fear of failure


Strategy is an informed belief about how to thrive


Strategy has to be deliberate


Strategy without creativity is doomed to fail


Data is a combustible fuel for success

The lie?

You tell me. I believe every word I’ve written. That’s the truth.

(The end)

1. Edelman Trust Barometer, 2021
2. Gallup Honesty & Ethics, 2020
3. Harvard Business Review: The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, 2014
4. Harvard Business Review: Henry Mintzberg: The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning, 1994
5. Mark Pollard: Strategy Is Your Words, 2020
6. Byron Sharp and Andrew Ehrenberg, Evidence Concerning the Importance of Brand Differentiation, 2007
7. data2decisions, 2014
8. WARC/Cannes Lions The Effectiveness Code, 2020
9. Ipsos Trust, 10/20
10. Les Binet and Peter Field: The Long and the Short of It, 2013; Effectiveness in Context, 2018

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